Monday, November 30, 2009

Nov 09 reviews

These reviews ran in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and Guelph Mercury in November.

Devendra Banhart – What Will We Be? (Warner)

It’s an old trope to complain about an artist becoming less interesting with a major label leap. And yet in the case of Devendra Banhart—whose sixth album is his first for Warner—he now sounds creatively bankrupt and downright bored.

Banhart is a restless creative soul, whose toss-offs were always at least interesting. He consistently been inconsistent, either falling flat on his face with ridiculous lyrics and goofy hippie-isms, or—as he did on his last album—successfully jumping from Brazilian bossa nova to gospel-infused classic rock jams to doo-wop to reggae to psychedelic folk—all glued together with his wonderfully elastic voice.

Trace elements of those things are heard here, but it sounds like someone put Banhart on meds and inhibited his wilder urges; everything lopes along in a heroin haze, without any of the fantastical imagery or intoxicating melodies that Banhart used to excel at.

“I know I look high, but I’m just free dancing,” he sings, on one of this album’s otherwise passable songs. But rather than sounding unselfconscious, Banhart sounds like he’s being monitored closely in case he waves his freak folk flag too high. (K-W Record, November 12)

Bell Orchestre – Who Designs Nature’s How (Arts and Crafts)
Score! 20 Years of Merge Records: The Remixes – Various Artists (Merge)

Merge Records celebrated its 20th anniversary with a week-long festival, an oral history book, a subscription series of specially curated compilations, and a disc of cover versions, now caps off its year by surrendering the master tapes of some of its best-loved artists to remixers.

This fares better than the patchy covers comp released in the spring—after all, how badly can you miss the mark when you’re dealing with the original tracks? In some cases here they improve remarkably on the originals: Caribou remixing Polvo, +/- juicing up the Rosebuds, and Four Tet turning the naivete of Guv’ner into a techno chant. John McEntire takes one of the only weak moments from the last 10 years of Spoon’s discography, “The Ghost of You Lingers,” and replaces the insistent piano plunking with a lilting ambient techno breeze.

Others are far more faithful, or attempt to unnecessarily insert their vocals. The only serious disappointment—if only because of the lost potential—is Jason Forrest’s remix of Arcade Fire’s “No Cars Go.” It’s nowhere near as daring as his own work nor the possibilities buried in the dense mix of the original; it also doesn’t help that an early cover of this song by Canadian electronic band Vitamins for You already cast it in a more synth-y arrangement similar to that heard in the first half of this remix; meanwhile, the second half is Forrest’s remix is almost indistinguishable from the original.

Though it’s billed as a remix album, Bell Orchestre’s Who Designs Nature’s How seems more like a compilation of their favourite artists than reconfigurations of the rich source material heard on their 2009 masterpiece As Seen Through Windows.

Therefore Montreal sound sculptor Tim Hecker offers a piece that could well have been culled from his most recent album, An Imaginary Country; likewise, saxophonist Colin Stetson—who joined the band last year—delivers a solo saxophone performance that is as rhythmically repetitive, enchanting and muscular as his normal solo material … which it may well be, as the title of his track doesn’t resemble any Bell Orchestre composition.

U.K. dub master Mad Professor stretches out the title track with hazy textures and electronic effects, although remains largely faithful to the original song’s structure; Montreal’s veteran turntablist Kid Koala and new duo Deadly Stare (one half of which engineered Amon Tobin’s Foley Room, which had contributions from Bell Orchestre members) fare better toying with trace elements of two of Windows’ stronger tracks.

No one touches the original album’s astounding triumph, the track “Elephants”—because why mess with perfection? (K-W Record, November 19)

Blue Rodeo – The Things We Left Behind (Warner)

It’s high time Blue Rodeo kicked its own ass.

While they’ve never suffered as a live band, their studio output of at least the last 10 years has been less than inspiring. On this double album, however, the difference is both cosmetic and concrete: the production is warm, hazy and old school; strings, flutes and tympani make appearances on some of Greg Keelor’s trippier numbers. But more importantly, both Keelor and Jim Cuddy step back up as songwriters worthy of their Hall of Fame status.

Keelor showed considerable strength on his 2006 solo album Aphrodite Rose, so it’s Cuddy who is the surprise here. It can be argued that every ballad he’s ever written is entirely interchangeable, but that certainly can’t be said of this album’s “One Light Left in Heaven”—despite the slightly maudlin title, it’s one of Cuddy’s finest accomplishments in his 25 years as a songwriter. His rockers are no small shakes either; tracks like “One More Night” and “Arizona Dust” show off some swagger.

Though Keelor and Cuddy split the album’s 16 songs evenly, Keelor eats up more running time with long, expansive tracks; “Million Miles” draws on raga rock and the folkier side of Led Zeppelin, while the 10-minute “Venus Rising” is the album’s lone stinker. Both discs open with two of Keelor’s best brooders—the kind that sound like Neil Young produced by the Beatles—where the band’s vocal and instrumental arranging skills come into clear focus.

In between are plenty of songs that do what Blue Rodeo have always done best, and there’s little here that really rocks the boat. But after years of conceding their crown to bands like the Sadies and Cuff the Duke, it sounds like they’re ready to fight for it back. (K-W Record, November 12)

Dead Man’s Bones – s/t (Anti)

The official holiday is over, but every day is Halloween for Dead Man’s Bones. Every song on their debut album sounds like it was recorded in a haunted house, with ghoulish lead vocals, sparse guitars, primitive percussion, and a choir of ghostly children lurking in the background of almost every track. Much of the music is fragile and falling apart, which suits the rickety ride perfectly: if this was the least bit slick, it wouldn’t work at all.

Dead Man’s Bones is the duo of Zach Shields and Ryan Gosling, who play everything on the album whether they know how to or not, which adds an innocent amateurism to the atmosphere. Dead Man’s Bones revel in the naivete of ’50s rock’n’roll and ’90s lo-fi indie rock, with the children’s choir and cartoonish fright-night lyrics (“Werewolf Heart,” “My Body’s a Zombie For You”) adding a suitably bizarre element.

This is the kind of project that mainstream celebrity mags mock as a Hollywood actor (Gosling) slumming as a musician, but it’s unique and strange and beautifully broken in ways that exist outside any proper conceptions of pop culture. And as a weirdo art project that exists in its own world, it works wonderfully well. (K-W Record, November 5)

Fool’s Gold – s/t (Iamsound)

The name may be emblematic of the ersatz nature of this band, but Fool’s Gold doesn’t joke around. Ethiopian melodies, West African rhythms, and lyrics sung in Hebrew all melt together when played by a bunch of Los Angelenos whose only direct link to their influences is the fact that vocalist and bassist Luke Topp was born in Israel, hence the Hebrew. Otherwise everyone comes to the music as an outsider—not that you’d ever know, and not that you should care.

Guitarist Lewis Pesacov excels at clean highlife rhythms, dirty Malian blues, and fading into the background amidst the heavy percussion. He and his bandmates imitate existing African styles with excellence, but how they assemble them is entirely unorthodox. They’re not out to fit everything into a North American context—the way Vampire Weekend marries township jive with Velvet Underground/Violent Femmes innocence—and nor are they trying to pass themselves off as something they’re not. The choral refrain on “The World Is All There Is” could just as well be Aboriginal North American, African, or the Arcade Fire. The syncopated, swaying waltz of “Nadine” is otherworldly unto itself, with or without any specific cultural reference point.

Purists should stay away; everyone else should jump right in. (K-W Record, November 26)

Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport (All Tomorrow’s Parties)

Even at its loudest and most intense, ’90s rave was too pretty, too pristine and not perverse enough to live up to its subversive reputation. That’s where Fuck Buttons come in, using white noise and distorted electronics to create nonetheless beautiful textures and slow-moving, cinematic melodies, set to chopped-up techno beats that certainly don’t guarantee a spot on the dance floor. Even when all hell breaks loose on a completely disorienting track like "Phantom Limb," a majestic mood still prevails.

Part of the credit can go to noted ’90s producer Andrew Weatherall (Two Lone Swordsmen, Sabres of Paradise), who helps beef up the Buttons’ sound considerably. “Olympians” sounds like it could be the theme for a 22nd century Chariots of Fire; closing track “Flight of the Feathered Serpent” breaks down in the middle of its 10-minute stretch into an extended African drum break before the eerie, Moby-meets-Morricone melody creeps back in.

Taken as a whole, however, Tarot Sports can be draining; this is a band best absorbed one epic track at a time. (K-W Record, November 26)

Bebel Gilberto – All in One (Verve)

Bebel Gilberto has erred on the safe side of bossa nova ever since her international debut, 2000’s Tanto Tempo, an album that found her working with interesting beatmakers and electronic musicians. All in One is the first album since to return to that experimentalism, although the slightly more abstract numbers are side by side with very middle-of-the-road, easy-listening route Gilberto has been most comfortable in. The laid back, velvety vocalist allows herself to surrender to groove on tracks like Carmen Miranda’s “Chica Chica Boom Chic,” a cover of Bob Marley’s “Sun is Shining” (produced by Dust Brother John King), and Stevie Wonder’s “The Real Thing,” where she’s backed up by the Dap-Kings. She’s suitably seductive on the sleepy ballads, which stand out when juxtaposed with the meatier tracks. All in One contains the best of what Gilberto can do, although one senses she could still push any one of these directions even further. (K-W Record, November 26)

Norah Jones – The Fall (Blue Note/EMI)

After over 50 albums in the last 30 years, The Fall can always be expected to reinvent themselves, and what better way than to title their new album Norah Jones. Oh wait, the Norah Jones album is called The Fall? Either way, surprises are still afoot.

No matter how huge her earlier successes were, The Fall may just as well be Norah Jones’s first real album. She’s no longer covering standards, her reliance on co-writers has lessened, and she’s left behind explicit nods to the jazz and country music that was such a formative influence; The Fall draws on the likes of Joe Henry, Tom Waits, and the Shins instead. Most importantly, she sounds like she’s developing her own personality—instead of simply making decent music that was easy to ignore. And as always, she melts genre barriers with her velvety voice.

With the help of producer and engineer Jacquire King—whose diverse resumé includes work with Tom Waits, Modest Mouse and Kings of Leon—Jones crafts an atypical backdrop for her languorous voice, one full of rumbling bass, eerie background sounds, and distorted Wurlitzer pianos. There is also far more guitar than can usually be found on a Norah Jones album—much of it she plays herself, occasionally calling in ringers like Marc Ribot and Smokey Hormel to paint with more abstract colours.

Thankfully, the makeover suits her well. And judging by the lyrical content, which is steeped in heartbreak and loss, it sounds like she needed at least a change of sonic scenery. Jones doesn’t wallow in her personal loss, and despite the prevailing melancholy mood, The Fall is not a dark record—instead, it’s colourful and alive with detail. Because Jones has always been a bit of a blank canvas as vocalist, even the most desolate lyric here is rich with empathy and reassurance.

It’s obviously her most personal album, it also wound up being her best. The Fall makes her earlier commercial breakthroughs seem like child’s play; hopefully, this marks the arrival of the real artist. (K-W Record, November 19)

Lyle Lovett – Natural Forces (Universal)

After 23 years of heartbreaking country balladry and rollicking Western swing, Lyle Lovett is ready to rock’n’roll.

At least, that’s what we hear on the closing track of his new album, suitably titled “It’s Rock’n’Roll,” with a finger-tapping guitar riff, big power chords and a boogie-woogie rhythm underneath. Lovett’s trademark deadpan dry delivery suits the material perfectly, and the song itself manages to be much more than just the campy send-up it could have been.

Sadly, that’s the most animated Lovett manages to be on the whole of Natural Forces, which is the latest in a series of merely average albums from this once-great artist; only 2003’s My Baby Don’t Tolerate has managed to break that curse in the last 15 years. His wit, his narrative storytelling, and his sardonic eye for detail all seem to have evaporated; without those, Lovett is still a decent songwriter, but nowhere near the unique, captivating figure he once was.

Perhaps it’s unfair to saddle him with the weight of his past, but when he set the bar so high, so many times, it’s near impossible not to. (K-W Record, November 5)

Pick a Piper – EP (independent)

Brad Weber has been touring the world for the last several years as a drummer with Dundas, Ontario’s Caribou. He is ostensibly the drummer in that band, but many Caribou tracks end up with every musician on stage hammering on a drum kit of their own. It sounds like Weber carries some of that aesthetic over to his new project, Pick a Piper, which is just as equally percussive and melodic, although considerably less intense than the multi-layered density that Caribou aims for. Weber likes to keep things sparse, whether he’s tapping ’60s psychedelia, ’90s lo-fi bedroom rock, or channelling a drum circle to interpret abstract electronica. Whatever the hell it is he’s up to, this is an incredibly promising beginning, and likely a rousing live show as well. (K-W Record, November 26)

Dave Rawlings Machine – A Friend of a Friend (Acony)

It’s a perfect album title for a sideman stepping into the spotlight. Rawlings has written and performed with Ryan Adams, Bright Eyes and Robyn Hitchcock, but is best known as the long-time right-hand-man for Gillian Welch. She’s right by his side here, playing, singing and co-writing on this, his first solo album.

Fans of Welch won’t find anything drastically different here, although Rawlings is very much his own songwriter and less likely to sink into a lethargic lull, as even Welch’s finest albums tend to do. “It’s too easy to feel good,” he sings, over a driving fiddle and upright bass, and for the most part he keeps matters spirited. The exception is a brooding, unnecessary medley of Bright Eyes’ “Method Acting” and Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer,” which share similar chords but couldn’t be further apart lyrically.

Highlights include a resurrection of his co-write “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, To Be High),” first heard on Ryan Adams’s debut solo album, and the gorgeous closing number “Bells of Harlem,” which could well go on to be a standard.

Along with Buddy and Julie Miller’s excellent Written in Chalk, 2009 has been a good year for the sidemen to step forward. (K-W Record, November 19)

Rupa and the April Fishes – Este Mundo (Cumbancha)

There’s something about this San Francisco band that’s too good to be true for public radio programmers or folk festival bookers: steeped in Parisian hot jazz and reggae, riddled with accordions, trombones, dumbeks and violins, and sung in French and Spanish, the music of Rupa and the April Fishes seems devised to push all the correct “world music” buttons for the café set. Yet they’re exceptionally good at it; bandleader and singer Rupa Marya strikes the right chord between torch song tragedy and hopeful optimism, while her lively band excel at delicate and spritely arrangements that may be musically nomadic, but don’t sound the least bit restless. This is a band who sound right at home in any corner of the world. (K-W Record, November 12)

John Southworth – MamaTevatron (Dead Daisy)

Despite being a huge fan of his first two albums, both released about a decade ago (1998’s Mars, Pennyslvania and 1999’s Sedona, Arizona), I have to confess to having missed almost everything John Southworth has been up to since. I lost track around the time he was reinventing his old songs for a bluegrass band and performing in whiteface; his newer material at the time suggested that the terminal romantic was surrendering to not-so-clever wordplay in place of real emotion.

So having no idea what’s transpired since—other than some co-writing with old chum Hawksley Workman, and having songs covered by Sarah Slean and Jully Black—it’s a joy to hear Southworth in top form on MamaTevatron.

He’s back behind the keyboards—no guitars allowed here—with a distorted Rhodes driving most of the material by pounding out steady eighth notes, while his droll tenor spins sweet and sour and silly tales. Southworth’s sound is still impossible to pin down, other than to say it borrows from various eras from English music hall to ’80s new wave, with a bit of many a pop oddball from history in the mix—including even Prince’s paisley period. “Buffalo City Hall,” “Trust the Voice of Love,” and “I Get It Now” are some of the finest pop songs of the year, and even the weakest tracks here are incredibly catchy and clever.

On the closing track, “Zulou,” he enters enchanted territory, and even if the lyrics about “19th century dwarves” and holding “your egg and spoon as you walk across the moon” seem ridiculous, Southworth’s unexpected delivery pulls it off with aplomb.

Clearly, it’s time to start paying attention again. (K-W Record, November 12)

Joss Stone – Colour Me Free (EMI)

At a ripe old 22, Joss Stone has four albums under her belt, but Colour Me Free is the first time she sounds in full control of her awesome vocal power: she’s not stretching to prove herself and nor is she trying to contain herself into a box. The title sounds like a cliché, but she does sound free here; even when the material is frequently lightweight, Stone owns this material, having matured into the kind of gospel/blues/soul singer that brings class and finesse to anything she touches. When she matches that with a strong original—which she does several times here (“Could’ve Been You,” the Stevie Wonder-ish “Parallel Lines”)—she’s unstoppable.

But if her vocal chops have always been there—emboldened now with years of valuable experience—the success of Colour Me Free is due just as much to her backing band, her collaborators and—most of all—her producers, who craft a sumptuous, swampy sound that gives Stone plenty of space to fill with her voice. The well-arranged, gospel-infused backing vocals sound like a real live trio of women singing in a room, not just clones of the lead; the pianos plink and the organs swirl around the sparse rhythm section; the strings are never syrupy. The cumulative effect goes for that late-’70s New York City soul sound that Alicia Keys frequently aims for but never quite gets. A guest appearance by Nas, on the politically lightweight “Governmentalist,” lends further weight to the album’s funkiest track.

For all its strengths, Stone isn’t quite at the stage where she can get away with a track called “Mr. Wanker Man” (it’s as bad as it sounds); the cover art is equally atrocious. Otherwise, this is the Stone we’ve been waiting for. (K-W Record, November 5)

Them Crooked Vultures – s/t (Universal)

The first thing you hear from this supergroup is a song titled “No One Loves Me, Neither Do I.”

After hearing the rest of the disappointing debut album by Them Crooked Vultures—a band featuring Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and Nirvana’s Dave Grohl—the self-flagellating song title seems like less of a joke.

How could this possibly fail? Perhaps it has everything to do with singer Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age, because no matter how good a band’s rhythm section is, their fate ultimately rests on their singer and songwriter. And instead of rising to the challenge in the presence of greatness, Homme sounds asleep at the wheel, like he’s trudging his way through Alice in Chains b-sides.

There are times when Grohl and Jones break a real sweat (“Reptiles,” “Elephants,” or the Cream-like “Scumbag Blues”), but even if you block Homme from the mix, this is still nowhere near as monstrous as it should be.

Them Crooked Vultures is an incredibly wasted opportunity. One wonders why they didn’t call Jack White—he’s always good for whipping together a side project on a moment’s notice. Too bad he was busy stealing another Queen of the Stone Age (guitarist Dean Fertita) for the debut of his far superior 2009 band The Dead Weather. (K-W Record, November 26)

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